When the Sheep are Preyed Upon

Acknowledging the Tragic Reality of the Church's Spiritual Abuse Problem

Diane Langberg

A church that follows her Head, the Good and Great Shepherd, is a refuge for the flock, a place of green pastures and clear waters, a place of restoration for wounded sheep and most certainly, a place that fights off the wolves. The secular and religious news media have globally exposed the fact that not only are there wolves in the fold, we have, in the name of our God, protected their place among God’s sheep by complicity, cover-up, and deceit. We have protected the institution of shepherding rather than the sheep. This results in untold damage being done to the body of Christ by those who name his name.

The Evil Reality of Spiritual Abuse

In my work as a Christian psychologist, I have walked alongside victims of many kinds of abuse: child sexual abuse, rape, domestic abuse, and human trafficking. The impact of trauma and abuse on a life is profound and long-lasting. I have also worked with Christian leaders who have used their power to control, manipulate, and silence those entrusted to their care. 

I believe as Christ-followers we are called to wrestle with the issue of abuse in Christian circles, fearlessly facing what is happening and the harm being done to vulnerable and precious people dearly loved by God. 

“Spiritual abuse” should be an oxymoron. The word spiritual refers to something affecting a human spirit or soul. Abuse means to mistreat another, to deceive or do harm. When we use the word spiritual to describe abuse, we are talking about using that which is sacred—including God’s Word—to control, misuse, deceive, or damage a person created in his image. I think we can safely say the pairing of those two words is diabolical. 

Leaders engaged in spiritual abuse use their position and words to coerce another by manipulating, deceiving, or humiliating them. They say, “God says . . .” followed by words that do not reflect the character of our God. Our God is Light and Truth, yet an authority in the church tells someone who has been raped by a pastor, “We will never discuss this because this is God’s church, and if you tell you will damage his name.” That is what spiritual abuse looks like.

The claim of spiritual authority is often used by those with power in the church. We assume pastors, elders, parents, teachers, or youth leaders are trustworthy. Their words are believed to be a reflection of the mind of God because of the position they hold. Orthodox theology, accompanied by advanced academic credentials, can be used to demand obedience of those less knowledgeable. But an ability to articulate theological truths does not mean the speaker is an obedient servant of God. 

Serving the System

A church or a denomination is a system. It consists of people standing together under the name of God for the purpose of educating, nurturing, and blessing others spiritually. Systems are meant to benefit and bless. But like individuals, a system can misuse its authority, crushing those in its care. How does a system that claims to be part of the kingdom of God and obedient to God, become toxic? 

A bright, credentialed, charismatic leader arrives to serve a church body. The church is energized, and people assume that this leader, with verbal gifts and theological knowledge, is wise and spiritually mature. They trust him, and the church grows. Sometimes that “servant of God” turns out to be a bully, working the system and its people to feed himself, taking what he thinks he needs or deserves. When this happens, it’s often confusing, and others may excuse the behavior. 

But over time a pattern is revealed as decisions are made and actions taken to benefit or preserve the leader rather than care for the followers. The leader—and others with power—believe that if he fails, the whole system everyone has worked so hard to build will go down. The system is protected rather than the sheep. The “mission” controls leadership rather than the Master.

Leaders and followers in such a system become focused on serving the system rather than serving God. But the system is not the Savior. It’s an easy deception to fall into, but it leads to hiding, ignoring, or denying malignant toxins that then go untreated. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, the abuse of power, arrogance, and many other things take root. The system has the equivalent of untreated cancer. 

Then a child comes forward and says to the pastor that the youth leader molested them. We protect the youth leader and not the child “for the sake of the church.” As one pastor said to me years ago, “We would not want to expose this and destroy such a gifted young man, would we Diane?” A woman comes forward and says her husband is battering her. But this husband, a leader in the church and a successful businessman, gives large monetary gifts, so we send her home to treat him “better” so he will stop. The position and authority of leaders are coupled with scriptures that are twisted to protect the system, rather than keeping the sheep of God’s pasture safe. The damage is devastating, often with lifelong repercussions.

Many of us have confused the church system with Jesus Christ; they are not the same. There are wolves among the sheep, tares among the wheat. Jesus called humans that looked good on the outside white-washed tombs full of stink. My work has taught me that many poor sheep have followed a blind guide, a gifted wolf, and landed in a pit.

Our faith systems have glorious goals, to bring many to Christ, to make disciples. But over time our stated purpose is often no longer our governing purpose. The unstated, but governing purpose becomes attracting more people, raising more money, or achieving greater renown. We end up building systems on a foundation of deception rather than on Jesus. As a result, we practice oppression, silencing, dehumanizing violence, arrogance, and corruption. We deceive ourselves, protecting within our systems the very toxins that will kill it if left untended.

Acknowledging the Truth

No so-called Christian system is truly God’s work unless it fleshes out his character. Toleration of sin, pretense, and crookedness do not reveal the character of God, even if they bear his name. Arrogance is never godly. Covering up sin is never godly. Abuse of power is never godly. Shepherds who feed on sheep are abusive. Leadership that preserves and protects the system, rather than the people, turns the house of God into a safe place for predators. Those who come to feed on God himself find themselves being the main course instead.

We have failed to protect leaders from their own bondage to self-deception and sin. Exposure brings hope, for it brings the cancer to the light. To hide sin by cover-up or silent complicity is spiritual abuse. It is a failure to love the perpetrator. Demise of a system—even a spiritual system—is not the worst that can happen.

Whenever another human being—knit together by God—is abused, we have also abused God himself (Matt. 25:40,45). David said to God, “Against you and you only have I sinned and done evil in your sight.” Sin is an offense to God. When a child is sexually abused, God is stricken. When a woman is sent home to endure an abusive husband “for the sake of the marriage,” then God is misused. To twist God’s words and ignore harm to his children is to grieve him. Arrogance and abuse of power offend our God.

Romans 16:17 warns us to turn against those who cause occasions of stumbling. Leaders who cause people to stumble are slaves, not of our Lord Christ, but of their own appetites. They deceive the unsuspecting with “good” words. They are slaves to power, position, adulation, success, and money and will use the words of our God to deceive people who trust them. Power that uses God’s Word to deceive and harm is spiritual abuse. To abuse those God has called us to protect and guide is to abuse our holy God.

In Jesus’ day, religious leaders seated themselves in high places. They spoke good words, but oppressed others with heavy burdens and loved the honor they received. Jesus’ word for them was, “Woe to you.” He lamented because leaders were shutting the door of his kingdom in the faces of his sheep. His heart was broken over the character exhibited by leaders in the house of God. They brought desolation into his house.

We must acknowledge and tell the truth about these things. Great damage is being done to God’s sheep, in his name. He weeps over such leaders and the sheep they harm. Be watchful. Recognize coercive and manipulative behavior. Call it by its right name when someone in power uses spiritual words and ideas to silence, control, and intimidate. Be discerning about those who hold power—including yourself. Do not be deceived. 

May we, with Daniel, call out to God: “O Lord, hear! O Lord forgive. O Lord listen and act. For your own sake do not delay, because your church and your people are called by your name” (Dan. 9:19).

Diane Langberg is a practicing psychologist and international speaker working with trauma survivors, caregivers and clergy around the world.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24